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The infinite variety of beers

Updated: Oct 7, 2021

From the (late) Greenwich Citizen:

Beer has a seemingly infinite variety of styles. Yet the necessary ingredients for beer form a short list: grain, hops, yeast, and water. And brewers themselves divide their world into two archetypes: beers that are created by yeasts that do their work at the top of the fermenting tank, and yeasts that are active at the bottom of the tank. Brewers call the first an ale, and the second a lager.

After that, the nomenclature becomes a confusing deluge -- bitters, seasonals, sessions, stouts, porters, triples, doubles, pilsners, bocks, spiced, abbeys, IPAs, exports, Scottish, Belgian, altbier, celebration beer, Koelsch, Goldens, Baltics, wheat, weizen, weisse, wittes ... Whew!

In fact, all of these are sub-styles of ales and lagers. Naturally, there are two exceptions; wild-fermenting beers, called Lambics, are mostly top-fermenting, yet brewer's convention is to classify them separately. Most German wheat beers are top-fermenting, but since they use very specific strains of yeast, and/or add lactic cultures to the brew, brewers also classify these separately.

Otherwise, the nomenclature of beer is the result of factors having nothing to do with the basic fermentation process -- history, culture (societal, not yeasty!), additional ingredients such as spices and fruits, the fermenting vessel, the duration of fermentation, the period of aging, whether the beer is aged further in bottle, the type of hops or grain used and how much that grain is roasted and a myriad of other factors.

Recently, I enjoyed a group of beers in the porter, or stout, style, as well as a group of very interesting Triple Ales. Porters are made using a darkly roasted grain, usually barley, but sometimes oats, rice, or even wheat. They are culturally associated with London, and were the standard beer in the days before pale ale swept England in the 18th century. They are full-bodied, dark and generally experience a very light use of hops.

Surprisingly, they are not as alcoholic as they seem at first glance and are lighter than their appearance might indicate. Porters spread from London to the Baltics and Russia, spawning beers with much higher alcohol content that would not freeze during the arctic winters in those countries. These are called Baltic Porters or Imperial Porters. The term "Imperial" refers to the Imperial Court of the Russian Czars and Czarina. Stout was the term initially used to describe porters containing heavier alcohol by volume. In England, Stouts took on a somewhat less dry style, while in Ireland, bone dry stout became the norm. Guinness is the exemplar of the bone-dry style. Today, Porters and Stouts are mostly indistinguishable, and their nomenclature depends on what the brewery wants to emphasize culturally; either a return to the atmosphere of old London, or a kinship with the archetype, Guinness.

Kona Pipeline Porter This is a porter made in the "coffee" style. The coffee style refers to a method of roasted the malt so that it takes on coffee/caramel flavors and imparts them to the beer. Yet many brewers of this style actually add coffee to the beer. With Kona Coffee being so well-known, this is a natural for the Kona Brewery. Yet I did not really taste much coffee in the brew, and found the beer to be somewhat watery on the finish, as I did with many of these porters. The flavors were fairly one-dimensional, with a somewhat agreeable roasted taste, but no real complexity. I much prefer Kona's Ale, which I spoke about in an earlier article.

Southern Tier Dark Robust Porter Lighter of color and body than I would have expected from a beer that bills itself as being robust. Again, less body on the finish, and a generally low level of flavor.

Sierra Nevada Stout Curiously, the Sierra Nevada and the Southern Tier have exactly the same levels of alcohol. Yet one is a stout, and the other, a porter. The flavors are indistinguishable, with what is becoming a numbing regularity of lightness in all of these porters/stouts.

Wolaver's Oatmeal Stout Oatmeal Stout should have a pronounced bitterness. This is even off-putting to some. This beer has very little flavor, although it is certified organic, to its credit.

Southampton Imperial Porter A slightly higher alcohol content is the only feature that makes this beer resemble an Imperial, yet at 7.2 percent, we are hardly talking about a true Imperial, whose alcohol frequently reaches above 10 percent. It is like the other beers in this bunch, and they are becoming curiously formulaic, as if the micro-breweries all went back to a collective recipe from their days as home-brewers.

Peg Leg Imperial Stout This beer comes in at eight percent, so it is "stout" in comparison with the Southampton Porter. Finally some consistency! Would that the beer had the same amplitude. Triple Ales are a far more interesting group, originating in the incredibly imaginative laboratory that is Belgian beer. The beers have a maltiness that is not entirely to my taste, but what they oversupply in foam is more than made up for in body, flavor, incredible aromas and strong, tasty finishes. Triples are ales, but their name comes from the fact that they use three types of malted grain, usually barley, oats and wheat. To these beers are added hundreds of varieties of fruits, herbs and spices with a very light, deft touch.

Bosteels Tripel Karmeliet One of the archetypes of Triples. Full of rich body, with a rather hoppy flavor that gives it a lightness not typical of a Triple.

Steenbrugge Tripel A delicious, very full beer with herbs that lend a lightness and flavor to the beer. One of the tastiest of all the Triples, with flavors of nuts and citrus peel.

Chouffe Dobbelen IPA Tripel The key here is the use of three different types of hops, in addition to the three malts. An array of tart flavors, each with its own layers and impressions: oily, citrusy, fruity.

Rulles Biere de Gamme A Triple that is also a Biere de Garde. Gamme means "range" and implies high-end, but this is a classic "keeping" beer, or Biere de Garde, that is meant to age for some time after bottling. I found this beer to be too much for one sitting, but felt that its full malt flavors would go well with a steak or hamburger.

The Bruery Trade Winds Tripel with Rice and Basil My favorite of the bunch. Who knew basil could be the perfect nuance of flavor to align the heavier malt elements with the hops to create a Tripel of exquisitly fine flavor and aroma?

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